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U.S. flag? Made in China

| Saturday, Aug. 25, 2007

Tanya Williams hates to buy Chinese-manufactured goods.

But like many American parents, she believes she has little choice.

"It's very hard to find American-made," Williams, 36, of Aspinwall, said as she walked out of the Wal-Mart at Waterworks Mall with her three children. "You don't know whether it's lead-free. I've been looking at the labels, but they don't say."

Williams' concerns are common and legitimate, consumer advocacy analysts said, particularly as global backlash mounts against China due to a surge of recalled, potentially toxic exports.

In recent months, high levels of chemicals and toxins were found in a range of Chinese exports, including toothpaste, seafood, pet food ingredients and toys. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission this week recalled four more toy products made in China, including SpongeBob SquarePants address books and journals, spinning tops and charm bracelets. All might contain hazardous levels of lead.

The recalls have many Americans questioning goods stamped "Made in China," said Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety at Consumer Federation of America.

"Consumers are very wary -- they don't know what to do," Weintraub said. "I don't know if you can see it, necessarily, in terms of actual purchasing decisions yet. (But) they're concerned that products from China could harm their children.

"It's a very scary feeling to have," she said.

Parents are frightened because nobody knows if more recalls will follow, or if toys in their homes are toxic, said Janell Mayo Duncan of the Consumers Union, a nonprofit advocacy group that publishes Consumer Reports.

"Considering that we don't even know the scope of the problem, it's a big concern," Duncan said. "Lead in the paint• That's just a no-brainer. I think parents are right to be concerned."

More than 80 percent of all toys in the United States are made in China, and every toy recall this year has been for products manufactured in China, Duncan said.

This presents a problem for parents - especially those on a tight budget - because the biggest toy retailers in the nation offer few American-made toys beyond playing cards, puzzles and some board games, analysts and local shoppers said.

"I don't want to buy any of that stuff from China, but it's tough to find American-made products," said Janet Boyle, 70, of O'Hara, who bought action figures made in China from Wal-Mart.

The Tribune-Review visited a local Wal-Mart, Target and Toys "R" Us and found aisles of toys mostly made in China. Fake U.S. money, Play-Doh, Etch a Sketches and wooden alphabet puzzles are made in China. Hot Wheels and NASCAR toys, plus a Motor City Muscle Camaro model - an officially licensed product of General Motors - are made in China.

The board games Monopoly and Twister are partially made in China.

Wal-Mart sells an American flag that was made in China. It costs $9.96.

Wal-Mart officials would not comment for this story. Target did not return phone calls.

Toys "R" Us said it believes consumers are less concerned with country of origin than with safety.

"What we are hearing is (that) it doesn't matter where they're from, just tell me they're safe," said spokeswoman Kathleen Waugh. She added, however, that Toys "R" Us is "looking at additional manufacturers" of American-made toys.

Though it is too soon since the recalls to determine whether consumer purchasing habits will change, officials said mounting concerns could revive a "Buy American" campaign.

Dick Laird, the president and founder of BuyAmerican.com in Pittsfield in Warren County, which sells and promotes American-made products, said the number of people signing up for the site's newsletter has more than doubled in recent months.

"I think people have had enough of China, period," said Laird, who estimates between 40 and 60 people sign up for his newsletter each day.

Ohio-based toy manufacturer Step2 also is seeing more interest in American-made toys, the company said.

"We've had a 300-percent increase in Web site traffic" since a recent recall of millions of Mattel Inc. toys made in China, said Step2 spokeswoman Dotti Foltz. "And every day you're seeing more recalls. I think we'll have more consumers looking for American-made toys."

Duncan said consumers demand cheap toys and that forces manufacturers and retailers to cut costs. Importers and the government must increase testing of overseas products, she said.

"They have not been able to get ahead of this problem, and the number of Chinese products being imported is going up and up and up," she said. "The government has ignored signs that this is a growing problem."

Recalls roll on

  • Aug. 22: The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recalled about 250,000 SpongeBob SquarePants address books and journals. Officials said paint on the metal spiral bindings could contain high levels of lead.
  • Aug. 14: CPSC recalled 7.3 million Polly Pocket dolls and accessories and about 1 million Doggie Day Care play sets by Mattel. Small magnets inside the dolls and accessories can be swallowed or aspirated. If more than one magnet is swallowed, the magnets can attract each other and cause intestinal perforation or blockage, which can be fatal.
  • Aug. 2: CPSC recalled 967,000 Sesame Street, Dora the Explorer, and other children's toys by Fisher-Price. Officials said surface paints could contain excessive levels of lead.
  • June 26: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recalled about 450,000 tires made in China. Officials warned that treads on the tires could separate while driving at highway speeds, possibly resulting in a crash or death.
  • June 13: CPSC recalled about 1.5 million Thomas & Friends Wooden Railway Toys. Officials said the surface paints contain lead.
  • June 1: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned consumers to avoid tubes of toothpaste made in China because they might contain the poisonous chemical diethylene glycol (DEG), which is used in antifreeze and as a solvent.
  • March 15: The FDA announced that certain pet foods are sickening and killing cats and dogs. The FDA found contaminants in vegetable proteins imported into the United States from China and used as ingredients in pet food.
  • SOURCES: U.S. CPSC, FDA, NHTSA

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